April 15, 2024

Dodgers’ Yoshinobu Yamamoto embraces ‘the peak’ of his home debut despite loss

LOS ANGELES — As they sat and ate lunch in December, Freddie Freeman put on the hard sell with a visual. He reminded Yoshinobu Yamamoto to look up. When you take that Dodger Stadium mound, he said, notice the four decks. The crowd. The aura.

“It,” Freeman said, “is the peak.”

When Yamamoto did take the mound on that visit this winter, the man who dominated Japan for three consecutive years listened. He gazed up there, absorbing it all.

“I could see the look in his eyes that he was pretty amazed,” Bobby Miller said, recalling that meeting.

Saturday, he took that mound for the first time, glancing up at the decks around him as he stepped out of the home dugout. There they were, all 45,019 fans, to watch him.

“That was a great vibe,” Yamamoto said afterward through his interpreter, Yoshihiro Sonoda. “Crowd, fans, I enjoyed it. That was great.”

The peak.

The sales pitch worked, though the Los Angeles Dodgers gave Yamamoto 325 million more reasons to sign. Their shared visions for Dodger Stadium didn’t include a night as cold, wet and dreary as the 25-year-old’s debut in this ballpark was Saturday, but they’ll have 12 years to work things out.

Los Angeles will take what it got out of Yamamoto’s second chance at a first impression, anyway. Braving the rain and a 35-minute delay, Yamamoto completed five innings that looked nothing like his first start, which lasted just one inning. He struck out five, walking none and allowed no runs while flashing an arsenal potent enough to look the part of the guy the Dodgers dreamt of during the 6-5 extra-innings loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.

There are still holes to poke at this roster, as Saturday’s Joe Kelly-authored seventh-inning bullpen implosion (and lack of a reliable left-handed relief option against a run of left-handed St. Louis hitters) showed. But the ultimate verdict rendered from this past Dodgers offseason in the present and future will rely heavily on Yamamoto.

His first big league inning nine days ago was a 43-pitch implosion. His second was a 15-pitch masterclass, striking out the side while looking much more like the guy the Dodgers and so many others were willing to shell out for this winter. Brendan Donovan went down on just three pitches, watching as Yamamoto’s curveball plopped into the zone. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Gorman each swung feebly over his go-to splitter.

The next innings just kept rolling. Save for a two-out double in the fifth from Alec Burleson, St. Louis hardly threatened.

Afterward, Yamamoto revealed he felt relieved. More than anything, he quelled fears about his ability to adjust.

“With Yoshinobu, there’s a lot of confidence and there’s a lot of pride and fire,” manager Dave Roberts said. “And appreciating the contract and his part of the deal, I think he takes it personally, and took it personally.”

His spring was filled with change, some even “self-inflicted by both of us as far as the organization and him,” Roberts admitted before the game. Lauded for his precise command throughout his time in his home country, Yamamoto routinely misfired in his first taste of big-league action. Praised for his supreme body control, he never quite looked comfortable. Continued adjustments to his mechanics — notably when he shows the baseball as his hands separate from a set position — seemingly threw him out of whack.

So they cut things down to basics. “Just cleaned up the delivery,” Roberts said.

After all, everything else has already been so different.

Dodgers coaches and officials had noted the nomadic nature of Yamamoto’s last few months; he spent much of his free-agent process living in Los Angeles and working out at UCLA before spending spring in Arizona. His debut in Seoul, South Korea, followed a 14-hour flight and lacked much of anything resembling normal, even down to the pregame concert taking place during his normal routine. It’s an overall transition not foreign to Japanese pitchers. They, of course, didn’t come with the same gaudy price tag.

“The baseball, the mound, the schedule, just being in a totally different lifestyle, environment,” Shohei Ohtani said through Will Ireton, recalling his own experience making the jump from NPB to the majors six years ago.

“Despite all of that, I think he pitched really well.”

It’s why those around the organization have preached patience that a big-figure contract affords little of.

Saturday was a reminder of why they and others believed in Yamamoto before he even threw a pitch. The ability to locate his fastball. The devastating weapons he could throw off of it. The “calm,” as he put it, to bounce back.

“Wanted to give him a win,” Ohtani said.

A bullpen explosion dashed those hopes. And a furious ninth-inning rally to force extra innings — with Mookie Betts’ solo blast and three consecutive two-out singles off Cardinals closer Ryan Helsley to tie it — would be all for naught.

“When you lose the ballgame, never feels good,” Roberts said. “But the main takeaway for us is, Yoshinobu had a tremendous night. And that was the most positive thing for all of us.”

They’ll have 12 years to work the rest out.

(Photo: Kelvin Kuo / USA Today)